Caitlyn Jenner’s surprising emergence as the world’s most famous transgender woman this year finally gave meaning to the mindless cultural obsession with the Kardashians, of which Bruce Jenner was once the patriarch. The glare surrounding the reality-TV family ensured that Jenner’s transition created a media feeding frenzy, which in turn provided a mass-market education on the challenges, sorrows and ignorance the transgender community faces.
Jenner is far from the first transgender celebrity. Chaz Bono, son of Cher, went public about gender identity in the 1990s and began transitioning in the 2000s. Jenna Talackova waged a successful battle to compete in Miss Universe Canada in 2012.
Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time in 2014. But no one has confounded or bent gender expectations as successfully as the 65-year-old former Olympian, a Republican once celebrated as an all-American masculine role model.
Jenner’s “Call me Caitlyn” moment is the third act of a very public life. The handsome athlete literally catapulted into fame, winning gold in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. In a gesture twinning patriotism with theatrics, Jenner borrowed an American flag from a spectator and held it high during his victory lap, creating a sporting tradition. The “Male Athlete of the Year” exited amateur sports for more lucrative pursuits—acting, car racing and product endorsements. He appeared on the Wheaties box and on the cover of Playgirl. He fathered six children and married thrice—the last time to Kris Kardashian, which thrust him into the Keeping Up With the Kardashians circus. That, in turn, made him familiar, someone viewers invited into their homes.
Jenner’s gender transition was a public one, subject to salacious tabloid rumours for months, which highlighted ignorance surrounding the topic. In January, Jenner was crudely photoshopped on the cover of one magazine alongside a bogus headline: “My life as a woman.”
But it was not until April that Bruce Jenner identified as a trans woman in a touching and widely seen interview with Diane Sawyer. Jenner described gender dysphoria, a condition she’d experienced all of her life, and discussed her desire to bring attention to violence against trans women. Jenner’s official debut as Caitlyn was on the cover of the July Vanity Fair, where she struck a glamourpuss pose in vintage lingerie, was a bombshell. The fact that Jenner was judged harshly for presenting herself in a sexualized way oddly only marked acceptance: someone once enshrined as a “he” was now seen, and duly criticized, as a “she.” The accompanying article outlined the difficulties Jenner had faced, including the isolation of taking hormones during the transition and the helpful role of the Internet. “Back in the ’80s I was alone,” she said. In the aftermath, even President Obama chimed in: “All you have to do is look at this month’s cover of Vanity Fair to see how much more accepting people are of who they are.”
Education and exposure continued on I Am Cait, an E! network docu-series focused on Jenner’s transition and advocacy for the trans community. Recently renewed for a second season, the show is credited with launching a trend toward trans-centric TV programming, with a dozen shows in development. As a finale, she was named Glamour’s Woman of the Year—a moment of vindication that came with its own backlash.
Jenner’s example reveals the ignorance that still remains; recently, she was the subject of tasteless jokes on the Country Music Awards. The rich Malibu resident also serves as a stark reminder that most in the community do not share such privilege. But, even with high production values, watching Caitlyn Jenner emerge offered a real moment of personal bravery that touched many. As Jenner told Vanity Fair: “I hope with my honesty I can make it easier for someone down the line.”